COLOMBO – Sri Lanka’s fishermen and women on the west coast, who have been plagued by the pandemic and lockdowns for more than a year, can no longer look forward to the plentiful catches promised by the annual rainy season. Your customers, said Aruna Roshantha, president of the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union, are too scared to eat seafood.

The fear stems from a disaster that occurred on May 20, when a ship loaded with 1,486 containers and 25 tons of nitric acid caught fire around 18 km northwest of Colombo. The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl also carried other hazardous chemicals and materials, including nurdles, pre-production pellets used to make plastic products.

Now dead fish, sea turtles, and dolphins are washing ashore, and grizzly photos are making the rounds on social media.

People “are afraid,” said Roshantha. “So even if we catch fish, there is no one to buy fish.”

Tourist attractions and Sri Lanka’s exporters – two other sectors hit hard by the pandemic – are also feeling the impact. The area is a popular destination for local and foreign tourists who travel there to enjoy fresh king prawns, crabs, lobsters, tuna, and seers. Singaporeans could also be struck by as Sri Lankan seafood stars in the city’s famous cold crab dish.

Roshantha said the disaster could not have come at a worse time – the beginning of the rainy season, which creates conditions that allow fishermen and women to make bigger prey. “During this particular time,” he said, “fishermen can make anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 rupees ($ 25 to $ 500) a day.”

As compensation, Roshantha continued, “the government is offering us 5,000 rupees a month, which is an insult to us. We want something that is justified by the government.”

More than 10,000 fishermen and fishermen from Colombo to Negombo, which is north of the capital, have lost their income due to the flood. Others, Roshantha said, were forced to sell a kilo of fish for around 200 Sri Lankan rupees (US $ 1), up from around 650 rupees before the disaster.

Niroshan Selvarajah, who runs JJ Fresh Maalu, a fish stall, said there was little demand for fish and sales fell by about 45%. “Nobody wants to buy,” he said. “You are scared.”

Dilan Fernando, president of the Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka, said some shipments have been canceled since the disaster, although a portion of these shoppers withdrew their cancellations after reassurance.

Several other buyers from Europe and Israel have informed Sri Lankan companies not to export seafood until the government has given the necessary safety clearance.

According to Fernando, pre-COVID-19 seafood exports contributed about $ 350 million to the economy annually. In 2020, the number dropped to $ 300 million. “The government must act immediately and issue a statement that the fish is safe for consumption,” he said. “But to do this, they first have to carry out the necessary tests.”

According to the National Aquaculture Development Authority, the fishing industry produced 429,150 tons of fish last year, up from 506,070 tons in the pre-pandemic in 2019. It contributes around 2.7% of the country’s GDP and provides direct and indirect employment to over 500,000 people .

The disaster is also said to have an impact on tourism. West Coast hoteliers are concerned they may prevent a COVID recovery if more tourists are allowed to return to the country. Kimberley Adams, director of Camelot Beach Hotel Negombo, said the pellet and chemical spill will have a negative impact on Negombo Beach.

“I go to the beach almost every other day,” she said, “and there are heaps of these plastic pellets and lumps of burnt pellets all over the place. The first day it happened, the beach was pretty much a white beach. ”To all the plastic.

Negombo Beach, usually a big tourist draw, was already suffering before the spillage as COVID restrictions hampered international travel. (Photo from April 10 by Munza Mushtaq)

Negombo Beach is known for its amber colored sand.

Adams believes the impact on hotels on Sri Lanka’s west coast is mainly due to the reluctance of international travelers. “I think the locals will understand the situation better,” she said, adding that “international travelers … come specifically for our beaches, and the last thing they want to see is a beach full of plastic.”

Sri Lanka’s tourism revenue fell to $ 957 million in 2020, a decrease of more than 73% from $ 3.6 billion the previous year, according to a report by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. The drop in tourist numbers was also dramatic – 507,704 arrived in 2020, about a quarter of the 1.9 million that showed up in 2019.

From January to May this year, Sri Lanka only welcomed about 15,000 arrivals.

Sanath Ukwatte, President of the Tourist Hotel Association of Sri Lanka, is unwilling to sound the alarm. He pointed out that other travel destinations have emerged from similar disasters, pointing out that the turquoise waters of the island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean fell victim to an oil spill last August.

“Of course they had a temporary setback,” he said, “but it was cleaned up. Here, too, the Bundeswehr is doing an excellent job clearing the beaches. I’m sure it will be that time again when it is high season again.” normality. “

Sailors and other troops began the clean-up mission on May 27th.

Others affected by the spill are not as optimistic. Angry environmentalists and fishermen went to the Supreme Court last week to file a lawsuit against the government and shipping company for failing to prevent what they believe to be “the worst marine disaster” ever in Sri Lanka.

The petitioners also ask to know who cleared the ship for entry into Sri Lankan waters after Qatar and India reportedly refused the ship after learning of a chemical leak. They are calling for an order directing the Attorney General to prosecute any civil servant who has deliberately failed to comply with their legal and regulatory obligations; 13 were named as respondents, including Port and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena, State Minister Nalaka Godahewa and Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera.

In addition, they are demanding compensation from the shipowner and his local agents for the environmental damage to the marine and coastal ecosystems, as well as compensation for fishermen who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the disaster.

Roshantha says that if the government receives compensation from the shipping company, two-thirds must be distributed to the fishing communities affected by the disaster.